Paul Doherty: The Assassin's riddle

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Paul Doherty The Assassin's riddle
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    The Assassin's riddle
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Paul Doherty

The Assassin's Riddle


Edwin Chapler, clerk of the Chancery of the Green Wax, sat in the small, musty chapel built in the centre of London Bridge. Outside the sun had set, though the sky was still gashed with red, dulling the stars and giving the inhabitants of London further excuse to trade, play, or stroll arm in arm along the riverside. The taverns and hostelries were full. The jumbled streets echoed with songs from the alehouses. The pains and hunger of winter were now forgotten, the harvest had been good and so the markets were busy. Edwin Chapler, however, had a heaviness of heart, as any man would, who had to face the truth but couldn’t tell it. He looked round the small chapel. At the far end was the small sanctuary, on the left the Lady Shrine and, to the right, a huge statue of St Thomas a Becket with a sword grotesquely driven into his head.

‘I should be in the Baker’s Dozen,’ Chapler whispered. ‘Listening to a fiddler and wondering if Alison could dance to his tune.’

He had come here, as he often did, to seek guidance, but he couldn’t pray. He opened his mouth but no words came out. He glanced up at the painted window. In the fast-fading light of the day, the tortured Christ still writhed on His cross.

Chapler looked away. In here it was cold and he was all alone; it might be days before he finally decided. Silent terror gripped him. What if he did nothing and it was discovered? Chapler swallowed hard. Two summers ago he had seen a man executed for treason: a clerk who’d sold secrets to the Spanish. Chapler closed his eyes but he couldn’t remove the grisly scene: the high black platform, the butcher’s table underneath the soaring gallows at Tyburn. The unfortunate clerk had been cut down and sliced from gullet to crotch as a housewife would a chicken. His head was then cut off and his body quartered to be boiled in pitch and placed above the city gates.

Chapler shivered as he peered through the gloom. The two candles he had lit before the statue of St Thomas glowed like fiery eyes. The darkness pressed in. Chapler felt some evil force was lurking near, ready to jump like a monstrous cat. Outside, the thundering hooves of a horse made him jump. Chapler recalled why he was here. He had been given sufficient warning to stay silent. He’d gone to his stable and found his horse writhing in pain. A sympathetic ostler had agreed to put the animal out of its misery. When the horse’s corpse had been dragged to the slaughterhouse and its belly slit open, instead of hay and straw, fish hooks and sharp thistle leaves had been found. Chapler had protested but the greasy-faced landlord who owned the stable just shrugged.

‘Don’t blame me!’ he’d snapped. ‘The horses are well looked after here. Look around, master, look around! Why, in heaven’s name, should we feed some poor horse fish hooks and thistles?’

Chapler had agreed and walked away: an enemy had done that. He closed his eyes again, clenching his hands as he knelt beside the pillar. A sound above made him start. He opened his eyes in terror at the black form which hovered under the heavy beamed roof. Chapler moaned in fear. A demon? Some dark soul hunting him? The black shadow turned, feathery wings gently beating the air. Chapler relaxed: it was only a raven, one of those great black birds which haunted London Bridge, hunting for carrion on the starlings beneath or, even better, waiting for the severed heads of criminals and traitors to be hoisted on poles. The raven must have flown in and been trapped. Chapler watched curiously: the bird didn’t caw but flew up to a window ledge, its yellow beak tapping at the horned glass, then it turned on its perch. Chapler suspected it was studying him. A portent? A devil? He wondered whether to open the door and see if the bird would fly out but he couldn’t move. He really couldn’t be bothered; at least the bird was a companion. The raven cawed as if it could read his thoughts; its head turned, looking at the door. Chapler sighed and struggled to his feet just as the door crashed open. The raven cawed in triumph as it floated down and out into the fading light. Chapler ignored it, more intent on the shadowy figure shuffling into the church.

‘Who are you?’ he called.

The cowled figure didn’t answer. Instead it stopped before the altar of St Christopher, just within the porch. A coin fell into the box; a tinder was struck, a candle fit and placed upon an iron spigot before the statue of the patron saint of travellers. The figure turned. It was a woman. Her coarse hair fell from under the brim of her pointed hat and lay about her shoulders in untidy coils. She shuffled closer. Chapler glimpsed a wizened face, bright beady eyes, lips tightly pursed, almost hidden by the furrows of her cheeks. He heaved a sigh of relief. It was only old Harrowtooth. A witch, a wise woman, who lived in a shabby tenement further down the bridge. She was called that because her one protruding tooth hung down like the iron tip of a plough.

‘I’d like to pray above the water,’ old Harrowtooth declared, forcing a smile. ‘A good place to pray says I. Always quiet. God’s water beneath, God’s sky above.’ Her clawed hand seized Chapler’s wrist. ‘And it’s always good to see a bonny young man attending to his orisons. Many a young man I’ve seen in my life,’ she gabbled on. ‘I remember one here, drove me away with curses he did when I asked for a coin.’ She pushed her ugly face closer. ‘Fell ill of a fever he did: a terrible thirst raged in his throat. Yet he was afraid to moisten his lips because he could not stand the sound or touch of water.’

Chapler pulled his hand away, dipped into his purse and handed across a penny.

‘God bless you, sir.’ She held the coin up. ‘God bless you. I come in and spend a farthing for a candle and looks I leave the richer. Who says God does not answer prayers?’ The old woman’s narrow shoulders shook with laughter. She opened the door and turned. ‘A word of caution, young man.’ Her voice was harsh, surprisingly strong. ‘The raven is a harbinger of doom!’ She slammed the door behind her.

Chapler went back and crouched by the pillar. Despite old Harrowtooth’s appearance he felt more serene, as if his mind was made up. If he did what was right, if he did what was proper, then he’d be safe and all would be well. He stayed awhile, thinking through what he would do. He dropped to his knees. Now his soul was calm he could pray, perhaps light another candle before he left? Immersed in his devotions, Chapler didn’t hear the door quietly open.

The shadowy figure came up fast like some spider, moving across the flagstones, not a sound till the iron-tipped mace cracked the back of Chapler’s skull and the young man, blood pouring through his mouth, collapsed to the floor. The figure stooped and dragged him out on to the steps of the church. The assassin paused. There was no one around. Darkness had fallen, the day’s business was done. He picked up Chapler, as if his victim was a friend who had drunk too much, and hurried along the side of the church to the parapet of the bridge. He couldn’t be seen here. The buttress of the chapel came out to shield him from view on either side. He hoisted Chapler’s body upon the rails before dropping him like a sack into the river frothing below.

Three evenings later, as the river ran strong and full to the sea, a long barge slipped out from St Paul’s Wharf and made its way across the bobbing tide. The barge was poled by hooded figures. In the prow and stern stood others, garbed in a similar fashion, holding torches. In the centre of the barge sat the Fisher of Men, his cowl pulled back, lidless eyes staring across the river. He was hunting for corpses: he and his beloveds, the outcasts of London, were paid by the Corporation according to a set list of fees for every corpse they plucked from the water. One rate for an accident, another for a suicide. The highest, of course, was for any murder victim. The Fisher of Men, his eerie, bulbous face carefully oiled against the river wind, crooned a lullaby even as he studied the water.

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